Driving into Edgerton on Highway 51, Tom Dickinson saw lights on in the basement of the T.W. Dickinson Warehouse.
It was about 10 p.m. He walked into the warehouse to find his father—also named Tom Dickinson—working on tobacco clippings in the waning years of the family’s 100-year tobacco venture.
That scenario played out many times before his father died. Many of the memories Dickinson has of his father and grandfather—the original Tom Dickinson—are connected to that building.
The building is not just a time capsule for his family, but for Edgerton’s entire tobacco industry, Dickinson said.
That’s why he wants to transform the first floor of his family’s warehouse into a museum, a space that would pay homage to the history of agricultural and industrial tobacco production in Edgerton.
In 1918, at the peak of tobacco production, Edgerton farmers harvested 62.4 million pounds of tobacco, according to a previous report in The Gazette. The city is proud of its reputation as the region’s first home of commercial tobacco.
But Dickinson needs help to create the museum. He said he hopes to find one big donor or investor to help finance the project.
Dickinson estimates renovations will cost $350,000 to $400,000. The building is structurally sound, but many updates are needed to bring it up to code.
His dream is for the warehouse to be part of a museum campus, complete with indoor and outdoor displays stretching from his building to the former Pauline Pottery factory.
The 12,000-square-foot building has served as storage space for Dickinson and his family for 100 years. It was packed to the brim with furniture, tobacco equipment, uniforms from various wars, trunks and other personal belongings.
An auction was held last month to clean it out, Dickinson said. Many items were sold, including historic tobacco artifacts he wished could have stayed with the building.
Some items were sold to people who support the museum idea and plan to donate the items back, Dickinson said. He believes he has plenty of artifacts to start the museum.
He is currently working with local backers to spread word of the project. But getting the money to make improvements is the most urgent next step.
City Administrator Ramona Flanigan thinks the city would support a tobacco museum in the warehouse.
First, Dickinson needs to present a plan detailing upfront capital costs for renovation and ongoing operating costs, Flanigan said.
Building plans also need to be submitted for approval, she said.
“We would love to see the building utilized and whatever Tom’s dream is, if there is a way to get it done, we will work very hard to see that that can happen,” she said.
Over the last 10 years, the city has worked hard to revitalize other former tobacco warehouses, particularly those in the downtown area, Flanigan said.
Dickinson’s building stands three stories tall, but he said the museum likely will use only the first floor. That rest can be redeveloped for other commercial businesses, he said.
City Councilman Matt McIntyre said a tobacco museum could bring hundreds of tourists to Edgerton. The building is visible to those traveling through the city at highways 51 and 59.
“It is a very exciting concept to get something multi-user inside the historic building,” he said.
McIntyre said he gets around town every day and has heard multiple people express interest in the museum.
Keith Anderson’s family raised tobacco in Edgerton for decades until about 10 years ago.
The history of the industry needs to be preserved, and the city currently has no site that does that, he said.
Anderson started a Facebook group called the Dickinson Warehouse Project, which now has dozens of members interested in the project.
However, one of Dickinson’s biggest personal obstacles is distance. He still lives in Washington, D.C., and needs help from Edgerton residents to get the ball rolling.
Dickinson acknowledges tobacco’s link to multiple health problems. But without tobacco, Edgerton wouldn’t exist, and that should be honored, he said.
“It was the economic driver, the economic engine, for decades and decades,” Dickinson said. “It put bread on the table, food on the table and clothes on the backs of multiple generations of people who lived in Edgerton.”
He hopes a museum could help people create memories for others, like the ones he had growing up, Dickinson said.
As a kid, Dickinson would spend Saturday mornings hanging out in the warehouse basement, where 20 or so women worked at the tobacco grading tables.
He remembers eating doughnuts and listening to the women laugh and tell jokes. It’s one of his fondest memories.
“They all knew me, knew me as the boss’s grandson, and they were always nice to me,” Dickinson said.